Here’s what high cortisol levels actually do to your body

Here’s what high cortisol levels actually do to your body

There are other, less nefarious things that can cause your cortisol levels to rise, Joshua Klein, a reproductive endocrinologist and co-founder of Extend Fertility in New York City, says. “How recently someone has exercised or eaten can change cortisol levels,” he explains. “Even pregnancy can alter cortisol levels.” Certain medications can cause a spike too. Still, Dr. Rodgers notes, getting a cortisol test isn’t particularly common (unless a doc is scanning for certain hormonal conditions) — so you might not even know if or when you have a higher-than-average level.

But what if my cortisol levels are too high?

This hormone will ebb and flow naturally — and that’s usually a perfectly normal thing. However, cortisol can sometimes stay too high for too long. This happens in the case of Cushing’s syndrome, a rare condition in which your body produces a lot of cortisol for extended periods, Dr. Rodgers notes. If you have it, you might experience unexplained weight gain; a roundish face; purple or pink stretch marks; thin, easily bruised skin; acne; and sometimes a fatty lump between your shoulders.

However, as Dr. Rodgers reiterates, it’s pretty likely that most people on social media blaming cortisol for everything under the sun aren’t talking about Cushing’s, since it’s a hormonal disorder that’s typically caused by a benign tumour. Dr. Rodgers says she’d only test for this if she had a solid suspicion the disorder was present — for example, if a person shows most, or all, of those symptoms above. (You can also have higher-than-normal cortisol levels if you take a lot of corticosteroids, like prednisone, which are generally used to treat serious conditions like rheumatoid arthritis or inflammatory bowel disease.)

For everyone else, there aren’t really symptoms of high cortisol per se, although you absolutely can develop problems associated with stress (which just means that cortisol is doing its job, per Dr. Klein). Someone who’s constantly stressed out might have issues falling and staying asleep, diarrhoea or constipation, hair loss, or an increased appetite: “These are usually kind of first signs and symptoms that a person is under chronic stress,” he notes. And when you are under a lot of stress for extended periods, you might have a higher risk of developing heart disease, hypertension, type 2 diabetes, arthritis, and anxiety disorders.

So instead of pondering how high is too high for cortisol, it makes more sense to focus on ways to feel calmer in general. Of course, reducing stress in your life is often a lot easier said than done, but there are a few small things you can do to feel a little better in the moment:

  • Breathing and mindfulness exercises. They obviously won’t get rid of your stressors, but you can kind of “trick” your body into assuming it’s in a less-fraught state. You could try deep breathing exercises and grounding techniques when you really need a minute.
  • Prep for stress. You can try to rehearse and better prepare your brain for tense moments — say, pre-written retorts for a nosy relative on holidays or strategies to handle tough questions for an upcoming work meeting.
  • Take a quick walk outside or get creative. Research has found that as little as 10 minutes in nature can cut back on stress. (Can’t get out? Try these gentle stretches before bed to release some tension.) Engaging with art and diving into a hobby can help combat anxiety and depression.
  • Call a professional. Again, so many of the things that are associated with stress (and high cortisol levels that spike and plunge) are out of your hands. A therapist can walk you through coping strategies that are unique to your situation and needs.

Some people on the internet might depict cortisol as something that’s entirely within a person’s control, and readily fixable with pills, foods, and exercise — but that’s hardly the case. “It really comes down to the management of your mental health, as opposed to taking supplements that’ll supposedly help lower your cortisol,” Dr. Rodgers explains. Hell, even putting down your phone (or setting time limits) on the app might be useful.

Whatever pain or frustrating symptom you might be dealing with is 100% real, but it’s important to take any suggestion, no matter how many followers a person has, with a grain of salt. “Cortisol is not the bad guy,” Dr. Rodgers stresses. “I think it gets a bad rap because too much of it can certainly be bad, but it’s something we really all need.”

This article originally appeared on SELF.

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